It was Sunday, August 1, 2004, and Senator John Kerry’s presidential prospects appeared healthy. Just days earlier Kerry had accepted his party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, and now Kerry was making the rounds on the morning talk shows, aggressively issuing his call for change.
At noon Kerry, sitting dead-even in the polls with the incumbent, wartime President, began his fourth and final Sunday morning television interview, appearing on CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. The show opened with a report from Iraq about that day’s multiple bomb attacks against Christian churches: “Absolute mayhem on the streets of Baghdad,” announced the CNN reporter. The dispatch reinforced Kerry’s campaign pitch that President George W. Bush had misled America into a disastrous war.
By 12:30 pm, however, everything had changed, including Kerry’s chances for victory in November. “It was like we were charging down court to score and suddenly a foul was called,” recalls Kerry’s spokesman, David Wade.
Because less than ten minutes after thanking Kerry for appearing on his show, Blitzer pivoted and announced, “We’re getting some breaking news information. CNN has now learned that the Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, is about to announce that the nation will go to a higher level of security…”
Two points that afternoon became glaringly obvious: The “war on terror,” Bush’s strong suit politically, had returned to the forefront, thanks to the warnings the President himself had signed into action; and the media, particularly cable television outlets, were going to hype the “chilling” terror scare with endless, excited saturation coverage, and do it at Kerry’s expense.
The sudden turn of events set in motion the disastrous media month of August for Kerry, during which Iraq was pushed aside in favor of terror and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth overtook all other political stories. (The impact of the first Swift Boat ad began to be felt just days after the August 1 terror scare.) In both instances, the Bush re-election team used the free news media–literally–to alter the course of the campaign. And in both cases the press was only too willing to steer the news in Bush’s favor.
Now, two years later, a key question is whether history is about to repeat itself when it comes to the “war on terror.” Surveying the political landscape, veteran prognosticator Charlie Cook recently noted, “Unless something very dramatic happens” in the coming weeks, Democrats will reclaim control of the House of Representatives this November as part of an electoral “rout.” It’s that caveat about something “dramatic” that has Democrats worrying–not because they necessarily fear a terrorist attack on American soil but because they fear another signature terror scare from the Bush Administration.
They also need to worry about the role the media will play if that occurs. Because if one of the enduring legacies of 9/11 has been this Administration’s politicization of terror threats inside the United States, the media’s lapdog hyping of the threats–its tendency to act as a megaphone instead of a filter, even in the wake of the Administration’s clear record of distortion–is another. Too often anxious for access and too nervous about allegations of liberal bias (and, to be fair, somewhat constrained by the fact that the Administration often controls key information and decides how to disseminate it), news organizations remain much more willing to cheerlead terror warnings than seriously question them or put them in proper political context.
For instance, in the wake of Connecticut antiwar candidate Ned Lamont’s August primary win over Senator Joe Lieberman, Republican leaders immediately began attacking Democrats and Lamont as being soft not on Iraq but on the “war on terror,” with Vice President Dick Cheney even suggesting that “Al Qaeda types” would take comfort in Lamont’s win. The following day British and American officials announced sweeping international arrests in connection with an alleged trans-Atlantic terrorist plot. The fact that key Bush Administration officials such as Cheney knew about the unfolding terror investigation as they launched their attacks on Lamont, or that the Administration urged the British to quicken the pace of the arrests, drew comparatively little attention.
To be sure, in the wake of terror warnings there have often been follow-up news reports that detailed just how overblown the terror scares were, and journalists responsible for those clear-eyed reports deserve credit for solid work. But those accurate updates were inevitably buried beneath the initial avalanche of fear-driven coverage. Just ask John Kerry.
Perhaps the CNN headline from August 2, 2004, summed up best just how effective such coverage can be at helping the Administration regain political advantage. It read: John Kerry Gets Little Bounce From DNC; Terror Level Raised in New York, New Jersey, Washington, DC.
The August 2004 terror scare that helped doom Kerry did not occur in a vacuum. For years following the 9/11 attacks, the Administration crowed about doomsday terror plots that had been foiled, although time and again the facts failed to back up the page-one rhetoric. Recall that when announcing the arrest of alleged dirty bomber José Padilla in June 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft proclaimed (via satellite from Russia, no less), “We have disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot,” when in fact Padilla had already been detained for a month and was ultimately charged only with conspiracy to murder with no mention of the alleged dirty bomb plot.
Note also that the first noticeable wave of Administration warnings came in early 2002 in the weeks surrounding Bush’s hawkish “axis of evil” State of the Union address, in which the first seeds for an invasion of Iraq were publicly planted. In his speech Bush warned about “thousands of dangerous killers” who had spread throughout the world “like ticking time bombs set to go off without warning.”
The same week, FBI Director Robert Mueller warned that undetected Al Qaeda sleeper cells were likely operating on American soil, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned Americans to prepare for other attacks that “could grow vastly more deadly than those we suffered” on September 11. The bad news came so fast and furious it was hard to get a handle on what was more upsetting: that the Bush Administration, which had previously maintained absolute secrecy about its domestic antiterror operations, was suddenly so talkative, or that the media reported the thinly documented terror threats so breathlessly and uncritically.
Fast-forward to the winter of 2003. With the war in Iraq only weeks away, the mainstream media took their “Fear Factor” programming to new extremes (remember the duct tape scare?), never pausing to ask whether the red-hot terror rhetoric streaming out of the Administration–nationwide terror threats were boosted on February 7 and March 17–were intended to accomplish anything besides whip up hysteria about Islamic terrorists and place the country on a firm war footing.
By the time of Kerry’s nomination in 2004, perhaps the White House reasoned that since media-aided terror warnings had been so effective in setting the scene for the war in Iraq, there was no reason they couldn’t be used to help to re-elect Bush.
At 2 pm on August 1, 2004, Ridge held an unprecedented Sunday afternoon press conference, broadcast live on network television, to announce the terror scare. Ridge ended his prepared remarks with an unusually partisan flourish: “We must understand that the kind of information available to us today is the result of the President’s leadership in the war against terror.”
The scare dovetailed perfectly with the Bush/Cheney political strategy. Indeed, the entire re-election campaign was a terrorist-themed event, with officials–including Ridge–stressing to reporters they were convinced Al Qaeda was planning a pre-election day strike inside America. To formalize the theory, the Bush-appointed head of the US Election Assistance Commission wrote to Ridge asking about the possibility of postponing the 2004 presidential election in the event it was interrupted by a terrorist attack.
Rather than describing the uncovering of a specific Al Qaeda terror plot, the way British intelligence officials claimed to have done this summer, what Ridge was touting on August 1 was newly uncovered and detailed surveillance intelligence showing that Al Qaeda members had been casing the World Bank headquarters in Washington, the Citicorp building in New York City and the Prudential financial headquarters in Newark, New Jersey. What Ridge failed to mention, and what government officials seemed to purposely obfuscate, was that the surveillance intelligence predated 9/11–which raised serious doubts about how imminent (or “near term”) the threat uncovered actually was. (A spokesman for the World Bank later dismissed the uncovered information as being “largely out of date.”)
Later when pressed about the gaping hole in his presentation, Ridge stamped his feet, insisting, “We don’t do politics in the Department of Homeland Security.” It should be noted though, that during the 2004 campaign season Ridge met privately with two key Republican pollsters, Frank Luntz and Bill McInturff, and took sixteen trips to visit ten presidential battleground states between late May and late October.
After he left Homeland Security in 2005, Ridge himself became more candid in discussing how terror threats had been handled: “More often than not, we were the least inclined to raise it. Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don’t necessarily put the country on alert…. There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, For that?”
Yet during the crucial early stages of reporting on the August 1 terror scare, the press dutifully–even eagerly–followed Ridge’s lead, as the following examples demonstrate [emphasis added in each]:
§ ”New intelligence indicates al Qaeda has been planning to strike financial firms and major corporations in Manhattan, possibly with suicide attacks.” Don Dahler, ABC News.
§ ”This new information that the US government has received presumably in the last few days,” Wolf Blitzer, CNN.
§ ”He [Bush] was being told that there was very new information regarding these potential threats,” Suzanne Malveaux, CNN.
Or consider Time‘s “exclusive” cover story (Headline: Target: America). Despite the fact that the article came out seven days after the warning was posted, Time made little effort to uncover a nonofficial version of the story. Here is a list of the sources Time used:
§ ”a senior US intelligence official”
§ ”a US law-enforcement official”
§ ”a law-enforcement official”
§ ”a senior intelligence official”
§ ”a US military official”
§ ”a top Homeland Security official”
§ ”an American official”
§ ”a Pakistani law-enforcement official”
§ ”Pakistani investigators”
§ ”a Pakistani intelligence official”
§ ”a Pakistani official”
§ ”an official”
§ ”a senior law-enforcement official”
§ ”an FBI official.”
Not surprisingly, few of the sources raised serious questions or doubts about Ridge’s handling of the terror scare. As for the revelation that the startling intelligence was actually four years old–a fact that came out days after the warning, thanks to reports in the Washington Post and New York Times, Time dutifully quoted “an FBI official” who dismissed the time stamp as “immaterial.”
Time‘s competitor Newsweek, busy touting its own terror scare “exclusive” cover story (same headline: Target: America), dispensed with anonymous sources altogether and simply stated as fact that “there can be little doubt that Al Qaeda is trying to strike the American homeland before Nov. 2.” And better yet for the Bush Administration came Newsweek‘s flat assertion, “The decision to raise the threat level to Code Orange (“high”) last week was not, as partisans and conspiracists suggested, a Republican political stunt intended to slow John Kerry as he came out of the Democratic convention.”
Despite the obvious boon the terror scare represented for Bush as it knocked Kerry off stride, reporters often played naïve in the extreme, suggesting the Administration was showing political courage by posting a terror warning. “This is an Administration, is a president, that is willing to take that political risk,” CNN’s White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux announced gravely in the wake of the Ridge press conference. Time typed up the same talking points: “The government feels it has little choice but to brace the public for another big attack. Bomb-sniffing dogs and explosives-detection teams reappeared in subways and outside public landmarks. In Washington, police set up barricades and checkpoints around the Capitol that could remain in place through Inauguration Day in January.” [Emphasis added.] Bush’s entire re-election campaign was built around the sales pitch of protecting Americans from another terrorist attack, yet Time pretended there was nothing the tough-luck Administration could do but send out bomb-sniffing dogs and set up police barricades around tourist destinations in the months leading up to election day.
Now, as the mid-term elections loom larger and polls indicate Republicans are continuing their popularity plunge, if and when new terror announcements are made it’s imperative that journalists acknowledge the political landscape and recognize that their job is not simply to repeat terror-scare chatter. In other words, journalists must be unafraid of the facts and the consequences of reporting them.